During the offseason, the impending free agency of goaltender Corey Crawford has been on the minds of plenty of Chicago Blackhawks fans, as he was set to hit the market following the upcoming 2013-14 season.
Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman erased all of that discussion in one fell swoop on Monday, agreeing to a six-year, $36 million contract extension with the 28-year-old Crawford, who helped lead the Hawks to their second Stanley Cup championship in four seasons.
The move goes against Bowman's character a bit, as he has made a habit of picking goalies up off of the NHL scrap heap and building defenses in front of them that prevent many shots from getting on goal. We've seen this theory in practice with players like Michal Rozsival and Johnny Oduya being brought in to bolster the blue line, while goalies like Marty Turco, Ray Emery, and now Nikolai Khabibulin have been brought in as cheap insurance plans in case the main goalies falter.
Meanwhile, those main goalies have been in a constant state of flux during Bowman's regime.
Cristobal Huet, who had signed a four year deal with the team during Dale Tallon's tenure, was jettisoned to Europe to make cap room after the 2010 Cup championship, and Antti Niemi was allowed to walk after an arbitration hearing that same year. Emery was also cut loose after the 2013 Cup win, and signed on in Philadelphia to compete for the Flyers' job with Steve Mason.
That brings us back to Crawford, and the intriguing elements of his re-signing to such a large number. Yes, $6 million seems to be a reasonable rate for netminders these days, as guys like Ilya Bryzgalov and Pekka Rinne have both shown. The issue then isn't so much with how much Crawford is getting, but rather about how his signing impacts what the Hawks can do with the rest of their roster.
After the upcoming season, the Hawks currently have 13 players on their books for a total of $55.6 million. Under the current salary cap, the team would be in a huge bind, with only a shade under $9 million to spend on at least eight or nine players, including a back-up goaltender and a suitable replacement for defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who will surely be on the chopping block if he wants a significant raise from the $3.5 million cap hit he carries.
Fortunately for the Hawks, league sources seem to think that the cap will actually be closer to $70 million than $64.3 million, so that would give them a bit more wiggle room. Hjalmarsson could conceivably be brought back in, and it's unlikely that the restricted free agents like Jimmy Hayes, Jeremy Morin, and Andrew Shaw will do much to break the bank should the Hawks decide to keep them.
The team also has players like Teuvo Teravainen, Adam Clendening, Phillip Danault, and Brandon Pirri all waiting in the wings, hungry for a shot at making the big roster within the next few years, and that impressive list of prospects is surely something that Bowman is acutely aware of, and eager to deploy when the time is right.
A bigger issue perhaps than the results at the end of the upcoming season will be what the Hawks will have the flexibility to do after the 2014-15 campaign. That year, not only do defenseman like Oduya and Rozsival hit the market again, but so do RFA's Marcus Kruger and Brandon Saad. As if all of that weren't bad enough, two pretty big names will be free agents too: Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
The duo is surely going to command similar if not identical contracts once again, and at a current cap hit of $6.3 million, odds are they will command a figure closer to the $8.25-8.5 million range. That addition of about $4.5 million to the cap may not seem like a lot, but when you factor in all the other replacement signings that the Hawks will have to deal with, it's clear that not everyone will be retained after the next season or two.
Even still, Bowman's shrewd manuevers as a cap wizard cannot be understated in this case. He
has managed to take a team in salary cap hell following their 2010 Cup triumph and, through a sometimes-painful reloading process, turned them back into a perennial contender with a ton of movable pieces and excellent prospects at his disposal. Therefore, any fans or media pundits who are whining and complaining about the impending cap crunch caused by Crawford's extension need to take a step back and look big picture.
The Hawks are deviating from their blueprint a little bit, but if a GM like Bowman believes in a player to do so, and that GM is the same one who has brought about huge changes without so much as missing the playoffs (and gotten another title to boot), then his vision should be given a little more credence than a bunch of Chicken Little's might give to it in the coming days and weeks.